Accelerate Physical Therapy

Non-Operative Exercises for Rotator Cuff Tears

A rotator cuff tear or injury is something that many athletes fear, especially baseball pitchers, tennis players, quarterbacks, and swimmers. It’s a painful injury that involves the shoulder and could sideline an athlete for quite a while, if not permanently. At the very least, it can greatly reduce their ability to play their best.

However, it can occur in non-athletes as well. The rotator cuff involves four tendons and muscles that affect the upper arm and shoulder area. It basically holds the arm together and in place, all while allowing movement in various directions…in everyone, not just athletes. In fact, a tear or injury can happen by simply falling on the shoulder, excessive lifting of heavy weights, or too much stress or use of the rotator cuff.

And, even the slightest tear can be quite painful and interfere with a daily routine or disrupt sleep at night. If it’s diagnosed by a doctor, it could lead to another appointment with a surgeon. However, surgery could be avoided if the tear or injury responds well to physical therapy, with exercises specifically designed for rotator cuff injuries.

Let’s take a look at some non-operative exercises, designed for a rotator cuff injury, as well as some basic guidelines to follow when performing them.

Basic Guidelines with Doing Rotator Cuff Exercises

Before, during, and after any exercise routine, certain guidelines should be adhered to and monitored. First, know how much pain is OK when performing the exercises. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to get that answer. It could be different for everyone. If it’s making your pain worse than it was, then you are probably doing it wrong, too soon, or too much.

Next, make sure you are using good posture when exercising…and always, actually. Bad posture can create worse problems for you and your injury.

And finally, it’s probably best to ice the area after exercising when you are exercising with an active injury.

So, now for a few exercises that might work for you…

Exercises for a Rotator Cuff Tear or Injury

Not all tears are created equally. Even though your tear might not feel minor, it might not require a routine as extensive as others to get you back on track. However, you could also be facing a more significant injury. Here are a few exercises, broken down by the extent of the injury…

Small Tear or Injury:

• Standing Arm Rotation with an Elastic Band – Place the end of an elastic band around something secure, such as a door knob (door closed). Standing with your injured shoulder away from the door, and elbow bent and at your waist, hold the other end of the elastic band. Move your hand (keeping the elbow in place) out and back in, 2-3 sets of 10 to start. Increase the number of repetitions when this becomes easy for you.
• Lying Down T’s – Lying face down on a bench or table, hang your arms over the edge. Raise your arms up, straight out from the side until parallel to your head, with your thumbs pointing up to the ceiling. You should be in a “T” shape, if you did it correctly. Hold the position for about 2 to 3 seconds, and then lower your arms back down slowly. Two sets of 20 reps is a good start.

Intermediate Injury:

• Circles – Standing, with feet shoulder width apart, start making small and quick circles with your arms straight out from the shoulder. You can increase the difficulty by raising your arms higher.
• Oscillation with an Elastic Band – Standing upright, hold on to both ends of an elastic band (about 2 ft long). Place your arms straight in front of you (thumbs pointing outward), and begin small and quick oscillation motions, all while allowing the band to add slight tension. Do about 30 reps.

Advanced Injury:

• External Shoulder Rotation – Using an elastic band, hold one end in a closed door, level with your shoulder. Facing the band, hold the other end, with your arm out to your side, and keeping your elbow bent at a 90° angle. Start pulling the elastic band backward with your hand, all while not moving your elbow. Do about 3 sets of 15.
• Bouncing Ball – With a small ball in hand, face a wall. Begin to gently bounce the ball off the wall, and catch it upon return. Do about 3 sets of 30. If it’s too easy, bounce the ball slightly higher until you feel challenged.

These are just a few examples of non-operative exercises you might be asked to do when you have injured your rotator cuff. Speak to your own physician or physical therapist to see how they can be tweaked and designed for your individual needs.